After the Fall

 

Outside the cave, the wind howls as a torrent of leaves and debris races by. The child sits on the cold, damp cave floor. her back against the rocky wall, her head pressed against her bare, dirty knees. It has been two days since she last saw the others. A short scuffling sound brings her breath up short. Her head slowly rises, her eyes casting about the dark interior for the source of the noise. Nothing. She slowly lets the air out of her lungs, but a sob escapes, echoing into the darkness. A tendril of a breeze sweeps across her grimy hair, and then is gone.

She is alone.

She is hungry. She is cold. And she wants to go home.

* * *

The Preparation

 Temlen stepped back from the table. The cloth Marda had spent months weaving, intricate designs of red within gold, covered the table's middle from front to back. Seven candles, one for each of this year's Eldests, were arranged in a semi-circle open to the front, following the table's own arc. There was nothing to distinguish them, of course, as was the custom. Each was white, of the best Entor wax, set into a simple block of wood, again white. But Temlen knew the one that celebrated his family: the one in the middle, for the Eldest of the Eldest.

He stepped back again, his sandals scuffing the temple floor. Ten rows of wooden benches lined each side of the aisle. They had been there for as long as he could remember, but he knew they wouldn't be filled tomorrow night for the ceremony. Temlen's grandmother would tell a story tonight, regaling the family with stories of Journeys past, how the temple had burst at the seams on that same night when her Eldest embarked. Yet over the years, people had left the village but few had settled from afar. Even within his own memory, the Journeys seemed to have - -

He shook his head. It will be a fine celebration, Temlen thought, as fine as any of the past. But not if the temple isn't tidied up some more! He set about straightening the benches, trying to get them just right. As he worked his way along the right side, he felt a breeze at his back.

"Temlen, of course. Hard at work. And what a fine cloth!"

He turned to see who had entered the temple. A woman stood in the open doorway, her face in shadow. She walked down the temple steps.

"Sandra! You came," he said, embracing her with fierce hug. "The messenger brought your letter, but you only said you might, and then we didn't hear anything more."

"Of course I came. She is your Eldest, and this will be her Journey," she said. Temlen smiled at his sister. Sandra is here!

"How is Marda about all this?" Sandra asked. She walked to the table and caressed the cloth. "Lanna is her Eldest, too. This is so beautiful, Marda must be happy."

"Marda finished the cloth a month ago, and Lanna is bouncing around the house, she is so eager." Temlen pushed a bench forward an inch, then back again. "But you must have your own cloth to weave, next year, isn't it? It is such an honor to have the Eldest of the Eldest."

Sandra approached the table, touching the middle candle, seeming not to hear. Temlen put his hand on her shoulder. "It's been long journey, let us go home and you can rest." Sandra turned, her face holding a troubled visage for a moment, before a smile worked its way out. "Yes, I am tired," she said. She took his hand. "Let us go see Marda and your family."

Temlen smiled. As they walked down the aisle, he stopped to push a bench just so. "Temlen!" Sandra laughed. "Oh Temlen, dear brother, let us go home."

The Celebration

"Let go of that, let go, let go! Mamma, make him stop!"

Stefan was the youngest, always the wildest, with so much energy, Temlen almost wished the boy was the Eldest, all that energy then put to good use. He walked over to stand between Stefan and Elsa, his middle child, seeking the source of their quarrel. "Pappan, he took my ribbon," Elsa cried, "the ribbon I made for Lanna's backpack!" Stefan's blond hair shook as he wagged his head from side to side. "No, no, it's my ribbon, my ribbon for Lanna!" he said. Temlen knelt before the boy and silently held out his hand. Stefan replied in kind, the ribbon crumpled in his fist. "Look, look, oh look at it," Elsa said, tears brimming in her blue eyes. Temlen took the ribbon and straightened it, holding it in one hand while he pressed and pulled it into shape. "There," he said to Elsa. He tugged a corner and held it out to her, laughing as she snatched it and ran away.

"Temlen, is there more cider?" Temlen looked up and saw Sandra and Marda across the room, each holding out an empty cup. The celebration was winding down, though Lanna still had all her school friends surrounding her with a gaggle of conversation. Jenna was an Eldest, but the others had already been through their own family's celebration. They examined Lanna's backpack, colorfully festooned with the ribbons the guests had brought. Tomorrow it would be full. And Lanna would embark.

"Oh, Temlen, about that cider?"

He smiled. "Yes, one moment." He crossed the room and headed down into the cellar. The stack of cider bottles had taken quite a hit tonight, a sign of a good celebration. He gathered three more bottles, thinking of the fall when he would have to restock his supply.

"Temlen."

He looked up. "Sandra, you surprise me again," he said as she came down the stairs.

"Temlen, stay a moment," she said. Temlen looked at his sister in surprise. She had spoken little during the celebration, giving Lanna her ribbon but staying with Marda most of the evening. "What is it?"

"Temlen," she said, "do you-" She stopped.

"Sandra, what is it," Temlin said again, concerned that something was troubling his sister. "Have we done something wrong, is it the backpack, is it not right? What is it?"

"Temlen," she said, a slight tremor in her voice. "Do you ever . . . do you ever wonder? Do you ever wonder, why they don't come back?"

"Come back?" he said, "What do you mean, of course they come back, they've come back before. There was a village in the south, and one across the mountains in Entor, I've heard this."

"And your village?" she said, her voice suddenly stronger. "Have any come back, Temlen? You heard your grandmother tonight, the celebrations, all the celebrations of the Journey, but not a single one for the Return."

"But, that is just our village, we are poor, they-" Temlen struggled to find the right words. "Still, the Eldest are for the Journey, it is our duty-"

"Our duty? Our duty to send our children away? I won't have it, not with my Kenan."

"Sandra, what are you saying? Are you saying that Kenan will not make the Journey?"

"Kenan won't, none of our Eldest will," she said. "There hasn't been a Journey in five years."

Temlen had heard of such villages, but Sandra's? No Journeys?!?! "What have you said to Marda?"

"I told her nothing, I saw how happy she was, I wish I could-" Sandra looked down. "Temlen, I will not be there for the ceremony. I have a ride, a merchants' wagon, they leave early morning."

Temlen said nothing. He had seen his sister less often since Kenan had been born eleven years ago, but he had expected to make the trip next year for his nephew's Journey. He could not find any words. He looked at the three bottles in his arms, smoothing the upturned corner of one of the labels.

Sandra turned to head up the stairs. "I'm sorry, Temlen, I should not have come. I'll tell Marda that I've taken ill. And give Lanna a big hug from her aunt. Goodbye."

She stopped when she reached the top step. "Lanna has her mother's eyes," she said without looking at him, "so beautiful."

The Ceremony

Temlen stood behind his daughter, who in turn stood behind her candle, each at the apex of the three semi-circles of candles, children, and fathers. The ceremony was underway, and the misgivings that had wracked Temlen since his sister's departure that morning had finally subsided. Every year, there was a Journey, a fact that now comforted Temlen. And Lanna's determination gave him the strength to push Sandra's questions out of his mind. I will visit her soon, he vowed, and see what has happened to her village, for such a thing to happen.

The Keeper finished his blessing, and moved to the side of the table. It was now the children's turn. Temlen and the other fathers took one step back as the seven Eldest sang in unison.

After the Fall, the Children Say,
The Maker vents her wrath
After the Fall, the Children Say,
The Eldest follow the path.

We will take the Journey
We will seek them out
We will find the D'ni
We will help them out

After the Fall, the Children say,
The Maker calls us there.
After the Fall, the Children say,
The Eldest answer her prayer.

We will take the Journey
We will seek them out
We will find the D'ni
We will help them out

After the Fall, the Children say,
The D'ni free to roam.
After the Fall, the Children say,
The Eldest will then come home.

First from the right, then from the left, working in toward Lanna, the children one-by-one blew out their candle's flame. A smattering of applause came from the villagers, younger brothers and sisters bursting with excitement as the Journey was about to begin.

The Keeper took his place again, center, in front of the table, facing the villagers. Temlen bent down to get Lanna's backpack. He examined it carefully, cinching the top closed, making sure the ribbons were pinned securely, feeling the heft of the supplies she would take with her. He stepped forward, holding it for Lanna as she put her arms through the straps.

"The Eldest embark on their Journey," the Keeper said. "You have given them your love, your support, your wisdom, everything they have, but now it is their turn. They must find the D'ni, the people who have lost their way, and show them the way home." He brought the Book up, holding it open in his hands. "This is the Link," he said, "the Link that will take the Eldest on their Journey."

With that, the children came around the table, reforming their line with Lanna in the lead. Temlen and the other fathers moved back to their bench in front. He turned to Marda, who sat in the row behind him. "Marda," he said, "our Lanna, she-" His throat filled with emotion, and he could not finish. Marda's smile gave him the comfort he sought. Temlen turned as Lanna moved toward the Book.

"I begin my Journey," she said. "I will return." Her hand moved down to touch the glowing panel, and Lanna shimmered, faded, and disappeared.

A gasp came from the villagers, adults and children alike. No matter how many times he saw it, a Journey's beginning brought tears to Temlen's eyes. The other children followed, each vowing to return, each fading from view. When the last was on his way, the Keeper closed the book. "The Journey has begun," he said. "Our prayers are with our Eldest, remember them each night, and look for them each day." He raised his hand to give a final blessing, and the villagers slowly rose to seek their way home.

Temlen approached the Keeper, knowing better than to ask to see the Book. "That was wonderful, as it always has been," he said.

"Thank you," the Keeper replied.

Temlen hesitated, his mind going back to Sandra's questions. "Keeper, I am sorry if this seems--well, if it seems improper, but I -- I want to ask my sister, she had wondered-" Temlen stopped, the Keeper considering him with a smiling, quizzical look. "Keeper, have you heard of a Return? I mean, I know they have returned, but have you heard of one, that is what I am asking."

The Keeper's smile faded. "The path is so difficult, I don't think it is proper to doubt the Return."

"Yes, I am sorry, I do not doubt that," Temlen stammered, "but I am wondering, do you know of one?"

The Keeper thought for a moment. "I do not see the other Keepers very often, but I think there was a village in the south, or perhaps it was one in Entor across the mountains." He smiled again. "Temlen, your daughter is so strong, I feel good about her Return."

"Yes, well," Temlen replied. "Again, thank you." He shook his hand, and the Keeper walked down the aisle.

Temlen went forward to the table. A village in the south. The other parents had taken their candles. He set the last one to the side, picked up the cloth, and began folding it. Or one across the mountains in Entor. When he was done, he took the candle, turned, and headed toward the door. The benches needed straightening, so he tarried awhile, moving them just so.

* * *

A flash of lightning illuminates the cave walls, seeping into the child's shuttered eyes. She braces for the clap of thunder that will follow. It roars into the cave, bouncing from wall to wall, and escapes into the recesses, between the rocks and crags that surround her. She rises to stand, bending back down to get her backpack. Reaching inside, she brings out the book she found in a small opening, a bit further into the cave. A ribbon marks the page she seeks. She opens the book and touches the dark, still panel. Nothing. A shiver runs through her body, the cold, the hunger, the fear. But mostly the knowledge: She cannot go home.

Outside the cave, the wind dies down. But the howling continues.